CANNES - The first press screening of the Cannes Film Festival is traditionally, in not-particularly-French parlance, a bit of a bunfight: always in the Salle Debussy, the smaller of the festival's two showcase screens, it tends to fill up fast with fevered, not-yet-red-eyed journalists scrambling for the last available seats with a workable sightline, while outside, the snaking queue of lowly yellow and blue badgeholders nervously hopes there'll be any seat at all for them. (Lest you think I'm sneering, I'm one of them: for me, at Cannes, blue clearly is the warmest color.) 

Today, however, was a little different. Journalists strolled calmly into the Debussy, the queue moving crisply along behind them. Remarkably, empty seats speckled the theater even as the familiar festival intro cued up on screen. That first-day buzz just wasn't quite there, and it wasn't (only) because of the gusty, rain-spitting weather outside. It certainly wasn't for any lack of requisite showmanship or pizzazz on the part of the festival's chosen opener, Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby," which tumbled onto the screen like a super-sparkly catherine-wheel, flashing gold and noise and going ah-ah-ah as it shot across the sky-y-y. (Katy Perry's "Firework" was the unofficial song of last year's Cannes, but it'd have been just as fitting here.)

No, "Gatsby" was a suitably exciting curtain-raiser -- the only problem was that its own curtain had already been raised. Having opened in the US last Friday and been widely screened for the press elsewhere, it's the first Cannes opener in a long time not to enjoy world premiere status -- a slight buzzkill for a festival that, in recent years, has kicked off proceedings with the first public screenings of "Up," "Midnight in Paris" and "Moonrise Kingdom." (Okay, "Robin Hood" and "The Da Vinci Code" too, but hey, they were still first.) US and UK critics largely stayed away; even those of us there were pleasantly relieved of the pressure to cobble together first reactions. 

Does it matter? Depends how far inside you want to play baseball, I guess. The public doesn't much care whether or not the festival gets the first crack at "Gatsby." Much as we critics might like to imagine otherwise, they're not hanging on our every verdict. Many are more interested in red-carpet snaps of Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan gussied up in their Wednesday best than the movie itself, and those certainly aren't contingent on the screening being a world premiere: the stars will look as pretty today as they did last week, after all. 

World premiere or not, meanwhile, it's hard to see how Cannes could have found a film more expressly tailored for party-starting duties than this one. I rather liked "Gatsby," as it turned out, but that's beside the point: it could have been a catastrophic glitter bomb and still provided the appropriate spirit of cinematic celebration. More than any other festival on the scene, Cannes unapologetically balances art and commerce with unapologetic ease, giving an unfeasibly generous platform to austere, barely distributable auteur visions (like tonight's Competition opener "Heli" -- more on that to come) whilst partying 'til dawn with the money men.

Luhrmann's "Gatsby" pulls a not-dissimilar trick: a thoroughly eccentric auteur vision cushioned in the plushest mainstream trappings money can buy, it's a film equally fascinated by its own artistry and the commerce that enables it, wholly reliant on studio wherewithal to bring its most florid, singular ideas to life. Much as he did in his still-enthrallingly odd "Moulin Rouge!" -- which, not incidentally, opened Cannes back in 2001 -- Luhrmann has used his ringmaster smarts to game a major studio into making an all-singing, all-dancing art film.

Not an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's culturally concrete novel so much as a naive, individually decorated totem to  it, it's the film Jay Gatsby might well have made of his own life: earnest in its excess, undisciplined in its beauty, blithely unaware of its own limitations. It's both improvable and unrepeatable, which is exactly what you want from a festival opener. It'll be a sorry Cannes if nothing beats "Gatsby" for intellectual and emotional cling (though I was more moved than I expected to be by its core romance, the aggressively flat stylization of which absorbs our own interpretive nuances rather than imposing many of its own), and a spectacular one if we've forgotten its loveliest illustrative strokes by the festival's end.  

Excess seems to be the buzzword at Cannes this year, perhaps appropriately considering that Hollywood's blockbuster overlord Steven Spielberg is presiding over the jury -- a coup the festival has pursued for some time. Already, Croisette rumors are pegging the director as the festival's own Gatsby: his vast personal yacht is the source of much gossip, with some even claiming he's demanded that Competition films be screened privately for him there.

Spielberg won't be required to pass judgment on "Gatsby," at any rate, but he is being served Steven Soderbergh's lurid diamante spectacle "Behind the Candelabra," which takes the politics of materialism quite seriously, while still going to town on the furs and hairspray. Cannes is embracing compromise and fusion in the production sphere with an HBO film in Competition, but they could hardly have found a shinier one. Un Certain Regard, meanwhile, kicks off with Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring," a nattily dressed (though structurally stark) film about the literal commodification of celebrity.  

Film festivals, as much as any other facet or offshoot of the movie industry, are feeling the crunch of economics: programmes and accreditations are tightening, while studios and sales companies are picking the films they promote at, the fest with greater frugality. "Gatsby," already well on its way to recouping its mammoth production costs after a hit first week in Stateside cinemas, flies (or perhaps drives) recklessly in the face of such wallet-watching. It's a glorious advertisement for romantic, increasingly outmoded cinematic heft, and the kind of big-screen-dependent film Cannes, in its capacity as an annual litmus test for the state of cinema, is understandably keen to place front and center -- a projected image of success. Warner Bros. may not have seen much worth in holding the film back just one week for a Cannes debut -- but rather like Gatsby's own summer extravaganzas, there's not much to be lost here from arriving fashionably late.